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Fifteenth Century

The Papacy

The West in the fif­teenth cen­tu­ry was in tur­moil over, the rela­tion­ship between the papa­cy and church coun­cils. Some held that the papa­cy was supreme. Oth­ers held that the author­i­ty of the church coun­cils supercedes that of the pope. A coun­cil was called in Fer­rara-Flo­rence (1438–1439) to con­sid­er that ques­tion. Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the East­ern Church arrived at this coun­cil once again look­ing for help in the strug­gle against the Turks. Among the East­ern Church­men who were accept­ed at the coun­cil on “equal terms” with the Latins, were the emper­or of Con­stan­tino­ple, John VIII; the patri­arch of Con­stan­tino­ple, Joseph; and, the Met­ro­pol­i­tan of Kiev, a Greek named Isidore.

The Council of Florence

At the coun­cil of Flo­rence the East­ern rep­re­sen­ta­tives accept­ed a strong doc­trine of papal pow­er — although the issue was not deeply dis­cussed — and the doc­trines of fil­ioque and pur­ga­to­ry. The Byzan­tine emper­or pressed to stop the­o­log­i­cal dis­cus­sions in the hopes of com­plet­ing the union. All the Ortho­dox bish­ops signed the union state­ment except Mark Eugenikos, the bish­op of Ephesus.

The union of Flo­rence was not pub­licly pro­claimed until 1452 in Hagia Sophia in Con­stan­tino­ple. On May 29, 1453, the Turks under Mohammed II took the city which was renamed Istan­bul, mark­ing the end of the Byzan­tine Empire. The first act of the patri­arch Gen­na­dios Schol­ar­ios after the fall of Con­stan­tino­ple was to repu­di­ate the union of Flo­rence. The patri­arch was under strong pres­sure of St. Mark of Eph­esus in this action. Saint Mark, the firm defend­er of Ortho­doxy against what has come to be called through him the “unright­eous union,” was can­on­ized a saint for his actions.


Just as the Byzan­tine empire was falling to the Moslems, the seeds of the com­ing Russ­ian empire were begin­ning to take root in Moscow. Ivan III the Great (1462–1505), the Mus­covite prince, suc­ceed­ed in extend­ing his role in the Russ­ian north by defeat­ing and annex­ing Nov­gorod. He mar­ried the Byzan­tine princess Sophia Pale­ol­o­gos in 1472, and accept­ed the title of Tsar (the Slav form of the old Russ­ian impe­r­i­al title of Cae­sar) and the sym­bol of the dou­ble-head­ed eagle. The ide­ol­o­gy of Moscow as the “third Rome” after Con­stan­tino­ple was being born.

In fif­teenth-cen­tu­ry Rus­sia a great con­tro­ver­sy was waged over the role which the Church should play rel­a­tive to the polit­i­cal and social life of the nation. The two lead­ers of the con­tro­ver­sy — both of whom shared the lega­cy of Saint Sergius, and both of whom are can­on­ized saints of the Church — were Nilus of the Sora (Nil Sorsky, 1433–1508) and Joseph of Volot­sk (1439–1515).

Saint Nilus led the par­ty of the “non-pos­ses­sors” who lived beyond the Vol­ga Riv­er. They are some­times called the “trans­vol­gans.” The “non-pos­ses­sors” held that the Church, par­tic­u­lar­ly the monas­ter­ies, should be free from own­ing and rul­ing over large prop­er­ties. They held that the Church should be free from the direct influ­ence and con­trol of the state. They defend­ed pover­ty as the chief virtue, with humil­i­ty and spir­i­tu­al free­dom dom­i­nat­ing the con­tem­pla­tive, silent life for monks. They were the inher­i­tors of the mys­ti­cal, hesy­chas­tic, and kenot­ic tra­di­tion of Saint Sergius and ear­ly Kievan spirituality.

The “pos­ses­sors” were led by Saint Joseph. Hence, they are some­times called the “Josephites.” They held that the Church and state should be in the clos­est pos­si­ble rela­tion­ship, and that the Church should serve the social and polit­i­cal needs of the emerg­ing Russ­ian nation. The ide­al of the “pos­ses­sors” was that the Church, par­tic­u­lar­ly the monas­ter­ies, should con­trol vast prop­er­ties. The Church should fos­ter a life of ascetic dis­ci­pline and social ser­vice among the peo­ple which would be root­ed in the strict obser­vance of litur­gi­cal and cul­tic rit­u­als. In this ten­den­cy the “pos­ses­sors” also fol­lowed the tra­di­tion of Saint Sergius. Both Saint Sergius and Met­ro­pol­i­tan Alex­ius played a very promi­nent role in Russ­ian social and polit­i­cal life of the four­teenth cen­tu­ry, as well as con­tin­u­ing the orig­i­nal Byzan­tine lega­cy of the Russ­ian Church and nation which was present in the land from its ear­li­est Kievan beginnings.

Although the spir­it of the “non-pos­ses­sors” always remained in Russ­ian Ortho­doxy, it was the way of the “pos­ses­sors” which dom­i­nat­ed Russ­ian eccle­si­as­ti­cal and nation­al devel­op­ment in sub­se­quent centuries.

The Fall of Byzantium

Ser­bia fell to the Turks in 1459, Greece in 1459–60, Bosnia in 1463, and Egypt final­ly in 1517. For the next four hun­dred years the Moslem Turks held sway over the Ortho­dox Chris­tians in the for­mer Byzan­tine empire in the East.

The West

In the West, the fif­teenth cen­tu­ry saw the con­tin­u­al resis­tance to the pow­er of the papa­cy by the con­cil­iar move­ment men­tioned already; by the rise of nation­al con­scious­ness among the var­i­ous West­ern Euro­pean peo­ples; by the reli­gious move­ments fore­run­ning the ref­or­ma­tion era; and by the human­ist move­ments of the renais­sance now becom­ing most pow­er­ful in their stress on the nat­ur­al man through the rebirth of inter­est in ancient Roman and Hel­lenis­tic cul­ture. The name of Eras­mus (d.1536) must be men­tioned in this regard, as well as the artists and sci­en­tists such as Leonar­do di Vin­ci (d.1519) and Raphael (d.1520).

Fur­ther men­tion must be made of the Czech leader Jan Hus who was con­demned and burned at the stake in 1415 at the Coun­cil of Con­stance for his oppo­si­tion to the pope and the prac­tices of the Roman Church; of Savonaro­la, the fiery Domini­can fri­ar of Flo­rence, who was burned to death by papal insti­ga­tion in 1498 for his denun­ci­a­tion and con­dem­na­tion of church­ly wicked­ness and sin; of Fra Angeli­co (d.1455), the Flo­ren­tine painter, many of whose mas­ter­pieces hang in Savonarola’s monastery of San Mar­co in Flo­rence; and of Donatel­lo (d.1466), Fra Fil­ip­po Lip­pi (d.1469), and Bot­ti­cel­li (d.1510).